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Sir George DYSON (1883-1964)
At the Tabard Inn Ė Overture [11í13"]
Concerto da Chiesa for string orchestra [19í06"]
Symphony in G minor [42í14"]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/David Lloyd-Jones
Recorded at the Concert Hall, Lighthouse, Poole, 1-2 November 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.557720 [72í33"]
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Sadly the music of Sir George Dyson is almost completely absent from the concert halls these days although his liturgical music does retain a toehold, however tenuous, in the repertoire of Anglican cathedral choirs. In recent years, however, quite a good selection of his music has become available on CD, revealing that the neglect of his music is by no means justified.

The Chandos label and Richard Hickox have led the way - as they so often do - and Hickox has directed Chandos recordings of all three works under consideration here although until recently all three were available only on separate CDs. In the last few months, however, the Hickox recordings of the Symphony and of the overture, At the Tabard Inn have been reissued, coupled, at mid-price. It is through Hickoxís fine recordings that I came to know these and other Dyson orchestral works.

Dysonís solitary symphony was completed in 1937. As Lewis Foreman observes in his authoritative note, it has been overshadowed by several of its contemporaries in the British symphonic canon. It was, perhaps, Dysonís misfortune that his symphony had to compete for public attention with such towering masterpieces as Waltonís First symphony and the Vaughan Williamsí Fourth. To compound the difficulty, within a couple of years of the symphonyís première Britain was at war.

The symphony has much to commend it but it would be idle to pretend that its profile is as strong as those of the aforementioned works by Walton and Vaughan Williams. Lewis Foreman also mentions the first five symphonies of Bax and up to now several of those have made a deeper impact on me than Dysonís essay. Indeed, until hearing this present recording I had felt that Dysonís Violin Concerto (superbly recorded for Chandos by Lydia Mordkovitch and Hickox) was a finer, deeper work. Itís a tribute to this new recording that now Iím not quite so sure.

The first movement begins with an energetic flourish. Lewis Foreman says that he finds this to be "very much a movement of troubled times and the distant rumble of war." For all its excellence, I hadnít made this connection from the Hickox performance but David Lloyd-Jones is powerfully persuasive. Thereís ample thrust to his interpretation (for example around 6í00" into the first movement) and he certainly conveys drama. There are dark undertones to the second movement as well. Quite a lot of the music is restrained and lyrical but there are some passages of passion as well, around 7í15", for instance. I like the way Lloyd-Jones maintains a good sense of forward momentum throughout.

Rather unusually the third movement comprises a theme and eight short variations. I particularly warmed to the noble and generously phrased fourth variation. In general the quicker variants are light on their feet and charming. Dysonís use of variation form is a cunning choice for it enables him to pack a considerable amount of musical variety into a short space of time. This is a most entertaining movement and it receives a winning performance here. The finale follows without a break, introduced by a warm, gently swelling brass chord. After a brooding introduction Dyson revisits material from the preceding movements. The ending, marked andante moto moderato, is particularly impressive. It begins fairly quietly but builds gradually and convincingly to what sounds to my ears like an affirmative conclusion. Here I may be at variance slightly with Lewis Foremanís view; listeners can form their own judgement.

This may not be the most eloquent or original of British symphonies but it is expertly crafted and orchestrated and it is built on excellent thematic material. Its neglect is hard to comprehend but, realistically, opportunities to hear it in concert are likely to be few and far between.

Regrettably thatís also likely to be true of the Concerto da Chiesa. This dates from 1949 and each movement is based on an old hymn tune. I have no hesitation in saying that it belongs very firmly in the fine tradition of English string orchestral masterpieces. Itís beautifully written for strings and it contains some marvellously effective interplay between a quartet of solo strings and the ripieno main orchestra. I wonder if part of the trouble lies in the ordering of the movements? The first movement, based on ĎO come, o come, Emmanuelí is impassioned and dark. In fact, itís the most troubled music by Dyson that Iíve heard. Itís almost forbidding, except that the writing for strings is so fine. I think itís a superb movement but its gravity, almost austerity, means that itís not an easy listen. By contrast the succeeding movement, based on the tune ĎOf the Fatherís heart begottení, is graceful and full of ease. Where the textures of the first movement were predominantly dark, here the music is light and airy. Had this movement opened the work I wonder if audiences and conductors might more readily have taken it to their hearts? The finale, based on the old psalm tune, ĎLaetatus sumí opens in joyous confidence. This is a lively movement, full of exuberance and calling for virtuosity from the players but, tellingly, Dyson ends the work in a more reflective and peaceful vein. This is a fine work and it is done full justice here. The Concerto deserves to be far better known and perhaps the existence of a first class recording at budget price will help.

To complete the disc we are offered the overture, At the Tabard Inn. This 1943 piece is a sparkling pot-pourri of musical ideas from Dysonís fine 1930 choral work, The Canterbury Pilgrims The overture can stand alone as a concert work, as is proved here. Richard Hickoxís splendid Chandos recording of The Canterbury Pilgrims included an equally excellent reading of the overture. I really wouldnít care to choose between that performance and this newcomer. Both are warm, witty and winning, just like the music itself. The Chandos recording is perhaps the more opulent in terms of sheer sound but no one buying this newcomer will feel short changed on sonic grounds. I just think weíre lucky to have a choice between two first class and very sympathetic readings, a comment which is equally true of the competing claims of the Lloyd-Jones and Hickox recordings of the other two works under discussion here.

The Naxos issue is presented in good, musical and well-balanced sound. Indeed, some may prefer the results to the more opulent sound picture that is characteristic of Chandos. (I enjoy either.) Naxos has good notes, mainly by Lewis Foreman. The performances by the Bournemouth orchestra are full of life, warmth and vitality. With this issue David Lloyd-Jones proves himself yet again to be a doughty and effective champion of English music.

The merits of the Chandos recordings are considerable and I suspect that the Hickox recording of the Concerto da Chiesa will also be reissued at mid price before too long. However, the Naxos release has the advantage of offering all three works conveniently coupled together and this combination offers an inexpensive way to get a fine introduction to Dysonís orchestral music. So this release is enthusiastically recommended to those who donít yet know these works. And to those who, like me, already have the Hickox recordings, this newcomer is a first rate alternative view. Either way, I strongly recommend this disc.

John Quinn

see also review by Rob Barnett


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